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I am a sucker for completing everything on my list and then allowing myself to have the reward.
“When I’m done with writing reports, then I can give that person a call.”
“When I finish cleaning, then I can have a glass of wine.”
“When I get to that savings goal, then I can treat myself to a brunch!” (Which will probably be pancakes…!)
I am a big fan of delayed gratification. It is well-documented in the “Marshmallow Challenge”, which pits 4-year-olds against the temptation of having one marshmallow immediately, or wait 4 minutes and get two, that those who can delay gratification work smarter, longer, harder, and are much more effective regulators of themselves and their decisions as adults.
But when that reward becomes, “…then I will allow myself to unwind, decompress, get out of go-mode, and be myself”, we hit dangerous territory. If I only allowed myself to be playful and have fun when I ticked off everything on my list, I would never catch the snippets of joy. I would never be the girl cracking jokes, or leaning into the tender moments, seeing the wistful glance, or able to grab the unexpected opportunities, and I would never experience anything from a different point of view.
Being so rigid with my expectations of myself can produce great rewards, and discipline is a wonderful task-master for effective living.
But there MUST be moments of the unexpected, particularly when it comes to humanity, joy, play, and love.
Simply, there is no perfect time to be human. You have to do it right now. You need to catch those unexpected moments of connection, take the two minutes to run over and see someone in person rather than hiding behind your laptop, grab the coffee (and eat the cake!), choose to laugh at the joke and engage, rather than worry about meeting every deadline that is crowding you.
You have to look hard and practise catching and creating those moments of humanity.
You can’t dress-rehearse love, or grief, or sickness, or death. They happen. Life unfolds, with all it’s intensity and colour, and if you don’t decide to be a part of those moments right now because they aren’t conveniently on your schedule, then you will miss out on so much.
By the way, I should mention that there is no perfect way to grieve, heal, or apologise. You take time, you pick your moment, and you go in, ALL IN. You can’t create the perfect reception for an apology if you have to give one. There is no guarantee that the other person will welcome a hard conversation, or if they will to listen to you at all. You do it because you choose to, it’s driven by your moral compass, and it’s in your integrity.
Same goes for love. There’s no containing the unexpected, playful whisper of love and connection. You can’t conveniently compartmentalise it until you’re done with your Official Day Self. You just are. Don’t be foolhardy and ignore all you responsibilities, your goals, your daily activities, but let life in to play when it invites you. It’s unexpected, delightful, stomach-flipping, and all that is real. And when the unexpected decides to tug at your heart, let it.
Don’t let go of your lists. That’s being ambitious, motivated, and working with agency.
But dare to catch those unexpected invitations to play, in life, in living, in yourself.
Without those, you will never connect, fall in love, wonder, day-dream, or create.
Schedule is KING, but daring to wander, dream and play is LIVING.
I don’t want to admit it, but generally, I like things to look nice. Ordered. Pretty.
But actually, there are many times in my life where this sense of order + “perfectness” impacts on the pure messy joy that I can experience.
It doesn’t affect me negatively, I still have the same outcome, but I lose just a tiny bit of joy and sparkle, curiosity and unexpected learning.
Interestingly, I am very good at supporting “good learning chaos” in the classroom. I have faith in my ability to drive that. But for me? Somehow the idea of routine equals maximum production. When did I become such a machine?!
For example, last year I had a favourite mug. Nothing wrong with that, except that I have 18 other gorgeous, brightly patterned, colourful, all-shapes-and-sizes mugs waiting to be used. The problem was I was all for not creating any additional work and securing a predictable outcome. And you could trace it back to my plunger-coffee brewing skills!
On the surface, I was a creature of habit. Flip that, and I was playing it safe. In my cup usage. Which no doubt meant in some other aspects of my world.
So this year, after cleaning for Chinese New Year, I started using every single other mug I owned, no matter how awkward to use, how it put my milk + coffee proportions out of whack, no matter how hard to balance, no matter how quickly my coffee cooled down. I put up with the inconvenience and lack of predictability for the sake of a new experience.
This all seems totally ridiculous when you think, “It’s ONLY A FRICKIN’ MUG!”
But it becomes a very big deal when you apply that sense of daring and risk and change to what I do in the classroom, what I read, who I talk to, the conversations I’m willing to engage in, what movies I watch, and how I approach life.
Am I willing to be a teacher different to what I’ve done in the past? I’m an effective teacher…but I wonder what else I can do? I win the day through connection + building a strong rapport with my students. What about pushing harder on grit + excellence?
When I am tired or overwhelmed by school, I go back to old familiar books, movies, and tv show because they don’t cost me anything emotionally. I don’t have to pay close attention. What if I traded one hour of mindless “re-whatever-ing” for 15 minutes of pushing out of my comfort zone?
I have cooked the same dozen or so healthy meals and lunches for school for the past year. Not because I don’t love cooking with a passion, but because – and GET THIS – I don’t want the extra wash-up and unpredictability of time use when I try new recipes! Oh my goodness. Cracking open the recipe books now. What is a kitchen for but to create joyful mess and experience new tastes + cuisines?
I solve problems by being perceptive, articulating my side, and then peace-making. One project I know myself to be engaging in this year is “warrior training”; staying with a problem and leaning into a difficult conversation more readily than walking the other way. It will be more uncomfortable and unpredictable, but I just wonder what it would be like to stay present and create authentic ripples, rather than not. I want to get better at close-range combat, well, here’s my chance.
So that “regular mug”?
For the sake of pushing up against bento-boxed perfect for all-over-the-table imperfect + present.
I have a fear of being too much trouble, being annoying, or asking too much. This fear has been well-hidden for ages, and mostly doesn’t bother me, but when I really look and dig deep, it’s right there.
I’ve recently come back from an extraordinary Gwinganna retreat in the Gold Coast which was NOTHING of what I expected, but gave me so many little starting points in how to improve my health, my well-being, my thinking, and in embracing life. Now I think I’m reasonably healthy in many things, and I think my strength is my emotional well-being, but this realisation with lingering fear surprised me.
I’m able to ask for what I need in my professional and personal life with consideration and generosity. I’m fair and thoughtful in my dealings, and always try to be compassionate and put things into perspective. But I realised there is another fear beyond all this…it’s the fear of pushing boundaries when things get really uncomfortable. When this happens, I quietly abort mission and make sure everyone around me has their feathers smoothed, their favourite blanket, and a nice hot drink, metaphorically speaking. Or, if I do not respect the person, that they leave with their sense of self intact, EVEN IF I DO NOT RESPECT THEM!
I realised that I am uncomfortable with discomfort!
So when life is going well, and everyone is reasonably happy and calm, my requests and boundary-setting all work perfectly. I don’t mind being “audacious” then, because no-one’s back is up. But what about when it really counts? When the turmoil hits? When there is deep stress that needs navigating?
I realise I am afraid.
And this fear is something I’d like to challenge, and something I’d like to patiently sit with and develop stronger navigating skills for. Already this year, I have had a few moments where I’ve had to step in and be the captain of some of these intensely stressful moments, where emotions are high and there is tension in the air that I can almost tangibly feel. I REALLY don’t like these situations; for one, I’m intensely introverted, and secondly, I go into life wanting to engage with people from a place of joy + energy! I don’t handle grinding, harsh confrontation very well. This is different from conversation and discourse, where there is a sharing of different opinions, information and ideas, and where both sides are deeply valued from the onset; THAT is invigorating for me. But those times where I stand to be unreasonably annihilated by someone who is just on a verbal rampage…well, those situations affect me deeply, and I admire those people who know how to navigate those times.
And it manifests in other ways. Sometimes, but not all the time, I will reuse a mug rather than getting a beautiful new one, order a meal that’s easier to prepare, agree to something because it puts less pressure on the person being requested of. Or even when I’m in disagreement with someone and in line to receive an apology, I will make it as kind and easy for that person to apologise as possible. So while I take care to have the boundaries that look after me, sometimes it still comes at my cost, when it should be the quiet strength and fairness of the situation that should win out.
Sometimes, I deliberate between compassion, fairness, and forgiveness, and which is actually at play. But THIS FEAR; fear of walking into a storm and avoiding those intensely difficult situations, is something I’d like to get better at. Even though it is exhausting, even though it takes a lot out of me and I don’t want to do it on a regular basis, I’d like to know that I could be the captain of that ship.
And in my heart of hearts, I know – I deeply know – that I can do it.
So here’s my little “imperfect” challenge to myself, to start facing this fear. I’ve been given a Country Road voucher as a thank you present, and rather than spending it on something practical, useful, or something people “expect” me to wear so that they feel safe, I am so going to consciously spend it on something that is different, something a little whimsical, a different style to what I would normally wear, and something that will take a little more care and time to wear properly, not just something I can put on for practicality’s sake. Because as colourful and vibrant as my outfits are, they are also embedded in practicality. I’d like to practise the “imperfect” challenge but wearing something a little frivolous, whimsical, and different. Wearing it strongly, and embracing a different aspect of me.
And I have a new mug lined up for my tea. 😉